Medicine Shortages in Cuba Are Becoming More Severe

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Indiscreet window. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — My father returned home and was clearly exhausted; he silently got off of his bike and fell into an armchair. We became worried thinking that he was suffering a great deal of pain and we ran to help him; but he stopped us by stretching out his right arm with an open palm. We asked him questions, worried, and he said: “I’m not sick, I’m frustrated.”

He had gone to four pharmacies and had waited in lines at two of them and he still hadn’t managed to get hold of any of the medicines he needs. We found out very early in the morning that some medicines had come back into stock and he had run out to try and buy them, but it was useless. It has been very hard to come across the most sought-after medicines for months now, that is to say this year so far.

My wife suffers from rheumatic fever and relies on painkillers and anti-inflammatories to feel better; even more so during the rainy season like we have now. They ran out over a month ago, and there’s no way of finding them, even on the black market. Not to mention that everyone at home is allergic: I have three children and only one bottle of loratidina syrup that we could get along with two dipirone tablets. We were lucky, because news that it had come in took us by surprise recently and we went with the baby, who has priority in the lines.

I spoke to the sales lady at the pharmacy and she told me: “we don’t have 98 medicines and among them are the most sought-after: painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, sedatives, etc.” A friend of mine, who is 71 years old, broke out cursing the system when they told him that there wasn’t any captopril left, which is essential for him and his wife, because they both have high blood pressure. “This is bullshit,” he told me from the heart, his face shriveled, as if he were rejecting all of his usual defense of the system he worked so hard for.

The medicine situation in Cuba today is truly terrible and these are just some familiar examples of a phenomenon that is widespread across the country. Doctors give you prescriptions and then you throw them into the garbage after two or three weeks, when you are tired of going to pharmacies just for the fun of it: they don’t put them on sale very often and it’s never enough for everyone. Scrambling crowds of people, like the line for beer at carnival time, give us a sad and painful landscape. People fighting tooth and nail to get something they need because they have illnesses and need to sacrifice greatly in order to buy them.

On the street, you only hear people complaining about the situation which is only getting worse; a situation which has always been difficult, critical, but incredibly enough, has the potential to be much worse.

Farmacia cubana. Photo:

When Fidel was president and Carlos Lage his right hand man, there were crises like this one and that’s why medicine supplies became a “priority” on the government agenda. This was the only way the situation became more or less stable, although never completely efficient: some medicines were always missing; or you had to wait a few days for them to be put on shelves; or this or that one were missing.

As a result, the Public Health Ministry’s drug company was transferred to Basic Industry (today just Industries); so that it would have more resources, dynamism and direct control. And there wasn’t a single government meeting where officials didn’t speak about these missing medicines.

This was the only way that medicine supplies would work in an acceptable manner, because in the Cuban system, which is dysfunctional, what works or more or less works is because the upper echelons of politics are pushing it from above. If they take their eyes off of it or lose their interest, it will fall apart and stop working altogether.

This is precisely what is happening right now, they took their eyes off of such a crucial and sensitive issue to the people. And it will surely take them months to fix the problem and make the situation stable again because there is a great liquidity crisis in Cuba’s State coffers; the result of large payments for oil supplies because Venezuela cut its quota which it promised in its Petrocaribe agreement, which is to be paid over 25 years.

And our economy heavily relied upon this friendly gift because it doesn’t have a lot of guarantees for those who offer international credit; because in spite of the boom in tourism on the island, other sectors aren’t growing; because in the Raul Castro administration of over 10 years, it hasn’t dared to promote real change which would encourage an economic system capable of mobilizing production forces and triggering productivity of their work. It doesn’t happen because they are afraid of the private sector’s growth and empowerment, as they would automatically stop being “held by the nose”, by the usual mechanisms of social control; and this is what they are afraid of, of losing power and control.

There’s some chicken at the ration store! Photo: Juan Suarez

These are the results of thinking as an empowered political class first and not as a country, not even with the respect that a people who, still don’t exercise their rights, deserve. Political reluctance to make changes is also a sign that they haven’t even fulfilled their own Concept of the Revolution; because if they had “changed everything that needed to be changed”, things would surely be working a lot better; and we wouldn’t be in such a serious crisis, where medicine shortages are only the tip of the great iceberg that is economic ruin.

Raul Castro will leave behind a sad legacy if he finally steps down from the presidency next year, like he’s promised: a country in crisis and without any promising signs for the future. These medicine shortages which are only getting worse and his government’s unsuccessful management for more than a decade have only served to reaffirm the invalidity of Cuba’s political and economic system.

21 thoughts on “Medicine Shortages in Cuba Are Becoming More Severe

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  • The Cuban regime not only does not care but takes items like bikes and gives them to the police. The bureaucracy stops the people in Cuba from improving their lives. We offered as a test 10 10 kw solar panels from mexico with backup batteries one to put in 10 different rural towns with 2 fridges a chest freezer plus a very small water treatment plant (200ibs) and a 3 wheeled e-bike 4 months ago and nobody yet gave us the ok. [email protected]

  • Chuck1938 and stephen webster, the Castro regime simply does not care – it doesn’t give a damn about people – its only interest is in creating a “mass” -the proleteriat!
    You two gentlemen are obviously concerned about aiding the less fortunate of humanity.
    The Castro regime does not share your concern.

  • Many people who travel to Cuba from Canada have given up as the leadership in Cuba as too much never gets to the people who need it the most. The Cuban management seems to ignore our requests any you never get any help from the Cuban embassy [email protected]

  • So the US lost its substantial (74% of imports by Cuba)) market to Cuba.
    Has it occurred to you Ken Hiebert that it is possible to be critical of Cuba and its communist dictatorship without necessarily approving the actions past and present of the US?
    Out there Ken beyond the horizons of the United States, there is a big wide world with some 200 countries. There are alternatives other than copying the US.

    Please Ken address the question. How is the embargo currently affecting the Cuban economy?

    We all know that almost 60 years ago, Cuba switched its sugar exports from the US to the USSR – at a higher price. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other member countries of the Commonwealth lost much of their market for agricultural products in the UK when it chose to become a member of the EU some forty years ago, but they adjusted. Like Cuba they found other markets.

    Please Ken address the question. How is the embargo currently affecting the Cuban economy?

    Between 1954 and 1958, trade between Cuba and the United States was at a higher level than what it is today. 65% of Cuba’s total exports were sent to the United States while imports from the U.S. totaled to 74% percent of Cuba’s international purchases. After the formal implementation of the embargo and the passage of Proclamation 3355, there was a 95% decrease in Cuba’s sugar quota, which canceled roughly 700,000 tons of the 3,119,655 tons previously allotted to the United States.[38] A year later, Cuba’s sugar quota was reduced to zero when President Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3383. This substantially effected Cuba’s total exports as Cuba was one of the world’s leading sugar exporters at the time.[38]

  • Well Ken, can you give an actual illustration of how the embargo is affecting the Cuban economy? Read my response carefully! I wrote that any economic impact ceased long ago and then that any impact (maybe I should have inserted ‘any other’) is minimal. The main impact is that the Castro family regime has as I said,been able to blame “El Bloqueo” for its multiple mistakes and incompetence.
    As regarding why the US maintains the embargo, one of the two major political partys has a donkey as its symbol and the other an elephant.

  • You say that whatever impact the embargo once had has “…ceased long ago.” Then you qualify your answer by saying “Any impact is minimal…”

    Can you think of a reason why the US would maintain an economic embargo that has no economic impact?

  • No Ken Hiebert, but any economic impact it had ceased long ago. The US does not and cannot control Chinese, Russian and Venezuelan imports into Cuba. Any impact is minimal but the Castro regime continues to blame “El Bloqueo” for its all too numerous mistakes and incompetence. Not even the most ardent socialist could actually suggest that the Castro family regime has proven to be economically efficient.

  • Are you suggesting that the embargo has no impact on the economy of Cuba?

  • OK Ken Hiebert, let us agree about the purpose of the embargo which was as defined by US law, to remove the Castros and introduce freedom of the media, freedom of speech and open multi party democratic elections. But the history of the US in Cuba made it easy for the Castros to keep the purpose hidden from the Cuban people and to utilize the embargo as a support by blaming it for all their own failures, declining agricultural production et al upon “El Bloqueo”. In short it failed as a policy and ended up being counter- productive.
    The embargo failed in its purpose – admiral though that purpose may have been, and it ought to have been reviewed and changed or adjusted. The idea that if it was left in place it might eventually be successful was pious.
    But Olgasintamales is correct in his analysis of the probable reaction of the Castro sympathetic (I almost wrote synthetic and then pathetic) bunch.

  • I will not say that it is the fault of the embargo by itself. There is no doubt more than one factor. But I think it is true that the embargo is meant to affect the economy of Cuba and I expect that it is succeeding to some degree.

  • This is part of the worsening of the Cuban management apparatus at all levels in the past decade. Year after year these same failures are repeated without any high up been reprimanded, demoted or fired.

    The best example of ineptitude is the agriculture field in which year after year, the leaders of this ministry complain about the drought, lack of animal food, animal weight loss and deaths, but no one stores water or food once it begins to rain and repeats the same cycle the following dry season.

    Since 1984 my organizations have been sending humanitarian help to Cuba consistent mostly of medicine, medical supplies, equipment for the physically challenged, sports, culture and education, with and without Pastors for Peace. A useless, dense and intractable bureaucracy no longer allows the institution that received our donations in Cuba to do so anymore and the one that are now in charge, simply ignore your requests.

    For that reason, for the past 5 years, our donations are mostly going to Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador, who insure free entry into their countries and express their deep felt gratitude.

    Approximately 800 pounds of valuable medicine, medical supplies and equipment are littering my porch, while hospitals in Cuba may not have them. If I do not get an OK by the end of May, they will be going to Haiti and Honduras.

    Contrary to my critics and their acrid denunciations and name calling, The Caribbean American Children Foundation sole objectives are people in need. It is the same to us if it is goes to El Carrizo in the DR, Jacmel in Haiti or Sambo Creek in Honduras. Mitigating peoples suffering is our goal!

    Much more denunciations like these are needed and welcome. Sad!

  • The difficulty is patricia that the chances of medical supplies reaching their hoped for destination is zero. The Cuban postal service (El Correo) is totally incompetent and the security services get into it as well. I sent a letter from Canada in a Canada Post envelope to my wife in Cuba on August 26, it arrived on December 31 and all it contained was one photograph and had been opened by the customs! Most of the Christmas cards I send to Cuba never arrive. El Correo is like a squirrel, it stores away everything it receives and keeps the storage space a secret.

  • And that isn’t the full Internet. Try googling Raul Castro – executions.

  • Only about 5% of the Cuban population have regular access to the internet.

  • would it be possible for cubans to purchase generic meds from this website that are affordable and based in canada… A lot of people who can’t afford their meds in the u.s. get them from here as it’s a reputable company…athough I don’t know if mail is allowed from canada to cuba or maybe mail is ‘inspected’.. just a thought..

  • I can’t wait for those dated sympathizers of the dictatorship repeat EMBARGO IS THE EMBARGO FAULT.

  • Osmel hits the nail on the head when he writes that the Castro regime is afraid of losing power and control. The shortage of medical products has nothing to do with ‘El Bloqueo’ it is a reflection of the incompetence of the communist “Socialismo” system which was imposed on the people of Cuba.
    It isn’t surpreising that Venezuela reneged on its commitment to supply fuel, for it has the highest rate of inflation in the world and a President who is not only an economic moron, but is endeavoring to create another socialist dictatorship, denying to comply with the Constitution and placing the opposition leaders in jail. He like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, modelled his policies upon those of Fidel Castro which have proven to be a failure in both Cuba and Venezuela. Now even Maduro is abandonin his little ‘Blue Book’ and is intent on re-wrriting the Constitution – he too seeks tthe absolute power and control which has been a disaster for Cuba.

  • There is no excuse for medicine shortages in Cuba. Fidel paid top dollar to steal and develop a first-rate pharmaceutical industry. Cuba exports medicines to poor third world countries who can’t afford modern western medicines. The only reason Cubans must suffer medicine shortages is due to poor management. Typical of socialist governments.

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